Leadership through Eyes of a Coach...Alan Booth

Monday, October 25, 2010


Earlier this year I designed and facilitated a management offsite meeting, focused on better balancing time between technical/business work and the actions of managing others.

But to my surprise [I should have known after 6 years working with this team], the focus became sharply defined as HOW TO CREATE ACCOUNTABILITY among both peers and direct reports as well as support functions. Examples of the problem included:
  • How do we get IT to keep their commitments?
  • How can we get everyone to keep deadlines without constant reminders?
  • When people are stuck, what prevents them from asking for help?
  • When establishing priorities, how can we keep people from going off on tangents?
  • What do I do that creates a lack of accountability?
The short answer: create a culture of "owner mindsets" where people genuinely feel it is their job to support each other, to take initiative to discuss ways to improve business functions, to reach out to stakeholders of one's work so they are on the same team.

How do you know when their is a need to address accountability? A frequent one I observe is when a manager points the finger to others as the source of problems or why something has failed.

Another is represented by an executive I am coaching who can not add headcount so wants to increase productivity by moving work to other departments...rather than examine his own leadership in dealing with his own department.

Do you work in an environment of owner mindsets?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Yes! The suspense around the annual bonus drives me and others crazy. Will I even receive one this year and, if so, what will it be compared to last year (which was pretty bad).

I propose we throw out the current system - really a lack of a system that is based on the underlying priciples of why we have bonus payments in the first place; that is:

  • To reward people for their achievements and contribution to company success

  • To encourage best performers to not jump ship and to achieve even more next year

  • Overall motivation to meet goals and expectations

The probem as I see it is the lack of connecting individual performance to the payout; secondly the discussion to assure achievement as expected might occur throughout the year but not connected to the "motivator" until the announcement of the bonus.

Oops! The latter is not true at all. When I have asked hundreds of managers how their bonus calculation related to what they achieved (or did not), I get the blank stare. Oh! Perhaps if there is any objective connection it is done at the year's end before rewards are finalized.

But if we are to truly retain top people, turn around weak performers and motivate all in achieving great things, why don't we plan and communicate both goals and expectations up front, in the beginning of the year - then keep the $$$ connected to performance updates through out the year? [I know...we can not promise the actual $$$ but the "score" can be tabulated]

Gee! In a good year, there is significant money on the table to just turn into another entitlement program.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Paradox of Asking Your Boss for Help

I am not sure who actually creates this dilemma.

Robert is a direct, quick acting and intense senior manager but is perceived as a most helpful manager who takes pride in helping his people through their challenges. So when his people are up against a stone wall they tend to rush to him and then he intervenes based on the power of his position.

I say "rush" because they could work harder on better communicating and developing relationships to get greater cooperation, especially from peers. They lack motivation because Robert is always the rescuer.

On the other hand, Robert would benefit from understanding that when he rushes in to help, he is neutering his people by sending the message, "you are unable to deal effectively with Anne". And Anne clearly gets that message which empowers her to not step up to help until Robert gets involved.

Whew! The hands-off executive gets hands-on at the wrong time for the wrong reason.

Stay with me. During the last year Rick promoted Mary to his team when Mary's job was reinvented and taken over by a seasoned manager, Mike. Mary is bogged down by tasks from her old job because Mike does not feel this is within his priorities. Mary, the kind person she is keeps helping Mike. Rick talks to Mike but nothing happens. So Rick goes to Robert.

Does Robert solve the problem? No, because he is a hands-off manager who spends 95% of his time with the top of his company, developing strategy and other corporate matters. So he is heard but does not create effective accountability.

If you are still with me, here's the lesson. Using the power of your manager, or even other more powerful people in your organization, carries the risk that you may reduce your own ability to influence others. Step up and learn how to effectively gain cooperation from peers and stakeholders. Your job will be much easier!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Loneliness in the Digital World

When I was a young kid I was a card carrying intovert, loving the time alone. But through some strange but loving parenting I became an "extreme extravert" craving conversation, meeting new people and challenging others to think outside the box.

I really need help here in the middle of 2010.

As I wait in the lobby of a client for authorization to enter, I finish reading the Journal and realize he is 20 minutes late - realize that when one of his reports comes down to greet me. "Alan, we don't understand why you are waiting; didn't you get Rick's email that he is held up in a meeting?"

Two weeks ago I interviewed a prospective client who wants help in an exit strategy prior to retirement. "We know your credentials and just need to feel comfortable with you...the fit thing, you know." By the end of the meeting after talking about a deceased family member and the pride in taking over the business, she says she is close to tears. I thought that meant the fit was a perfect match, especially after meeting every one of her staff. "I'll call you on Monday to determine when we should start". It has been over two weeks and five attempts to reconnect.

Loneliness in the lobby and loneliness staring at a phone that won't ring back.


I purchased an IPhone 4 for immediate email connecting (if only I could fix that darn antenna problem).

But that does not help my need to have live dialogue. In my business of coaching and management consulting, it is the nuances, tone and body language that communicates louder than words.

Where can I go for help?

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I recently emailed my client, a president of a global corporation, that I ASAP needed to sit down with him to establish measurable outcomes for each of his direct reports I am working with. We both recognize that a focus on top priorities is critical...but that those may differ in reality or interpretation. As important is helping him meet the expectations of his manager (and I am not yet privy to those details...but should be).

Here is his response:
"Just great, Alan. Glad you are engaged at your usual high
standard. I agree that measurable outcomes are necessary. My axe
with management consultants in the past is they never follow up with us to keep
us honest."

What never surprises me is the lack of clarity of expectations down the chain of command in most organizations. So my role frequently becomes one of helping executives articulate expectations, communicate them effectively and create an owner mindset to achieve.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Bill (COO) is in the first 6 months of implementing a new product launch and speed is critical to maintaining a critical edge before his competition figures out how the market will shift significantly.

But not everyone is stepping up: deadlines are being missed, meetings are becoming a fertile field for conflict (spoken and unspoken) and IT needs to rearrange their priorities and staffing.

What is the best strategy at this point? Act like a physician to diagnose what is getting in the way.

For every mission critical action there are numerous reasons why people don't make things happen as planned. There is no time for guessing. Here are some examples of what I have encountered:
  • They don't know how to do what the task demands - but think they do
  • They don't understand why they should do something [a significant motivation factor]
  • They think something else is more important
  • They think their way is better
  • They lack confidence and become risk averse
  • They think they are already doing it
  • You have not listened to their suggestions for doing it more effectively
Without the right diagnosis, the prescription for moving forward is flawed and the prognosis is not where it needs to be!

Friday, March 12, 2010


This is what I frequently hear from those reporting to C-level executives and wonder why. It could be:
  • "Managing people" takes too much time with less ROI
  • We hire competent people who should not need managing
  • We don't know how to effectively manage certain people or situations
  • I am unwilling to change
The more I explore this mindset the more I find that this is a matter of habit and familiarity; i.e. a syndrome of managers promoted or hired for technical/functional expertise. Those people naturally hold on to what they have done best and have gain satisfaction in doing. But that is not the realm of managing people!

The second explanation is one of modeling how they are and have been managed. This is the predominate means of how one learns how to manage (before any coaching, I might add!).

So how does one receive coaching that is not perceived as taking time away from very busy schedules? Goal setting-observation of actual job functions-debrief-repeat cycle.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I was challenged this morning from a Tweet I encountered...to reflect on the most important interview question one can ask. Just one! OK, perhaps the one that you can then follow up with other questions to learn more.

"Tell me about yourself."

That's it. Simple maybe but try it on yourself by having your friends ask you. What do you say? How do you choose what to say?

I can still remember that question when I was being interviewed for a sales position over 25 years ago. My future manager and his manager were in the room. I had no clue where to start so used the "resume format": start from the beginning of my career, cover highlights of each position and and look for a response when to end.

Well, I could not pick up any clues on how my talking was being received, their faces were stone cold frozen. And at the end, I had just one response as one manager said to the other: "He certainly talks a lot but possibly he is trainable and we can fix that."

So was the length of my talk important? Yes, but there was more I learned later as my new manager/mentor taught me:
  • Can the story tell us about his character?
  • How does he make decisions?
  • What is important to him?
  • Why has he been successful?
At events where I am meeting important prospective clients, I use that question with slight variation. At the Greenwich Leadership Forum, I usually ask, "What attracts you to this event?' or "What do you find is valuable enough at these meetings to bring you out for 6:30 am coffee and discussion?"

The point is to start a conversation where I am not the focus, the other person is. So when I am asked at these type meetings, "what do you do?" I answer with one short sentence and then ask a simple question to engage them.

"I advise and sometimes coach leaders on their most pressing dilemmas; my challenge is getting executives to be vulnerable enough to tell me what keeps them up at night. How might you respond?"

The higher the title of people in transition I help, the more difficulty they seem to have is engaging others. It's the old elevator speech but no personable technique to engage in conversation.

In the formalized atmosphere of being interviewed, the answer then must be short, and compelling enough that the interviewer asks you to continue. That's the challenge.

As an interviewer, I greatly respect the candidate when they talk only for a moment, allowing me to refocus where they are going. "When you talked about your last position, I sensed this was not your most favorite job..." The response can be very telling!

Oh! By the way, to really learn about someone enough to predict their future success working for you: drop the habit of referring to the resume or notes. Look the candidate in the eye and listen well enough to read between the lines to formulate your next series of questions.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Mark Pincus, chief executive of Zynga, tells the New York Times [Corner Office, January 31, 2010] that he found himself challenged by how to effectively touch everyone in an organization once the growth of his employees exceeded 150.

It was easy to keep everyone informed and going in the same direction with 50 people but when the size grew, it was physically impossible to efficiently communicate with everyone. Adding middle management did not seem the best solution.

So he experimented [successfully] by having everyone charged with figuring out what they wanted to be C.E.O. of. This technique essentially was an act of delegation with accountability.

He said to his people, "By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you're C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful." This then was published so everyone knew who was in charge of what.

He talks about the receptionist who kept talking about needing a new phone system as the company got larger. By putting her in charge of that project, "I don't want to hear about it. Just go buy it. Go figure it out", she was so motivated that no one could have done a better job of solving this need.

From my own experience with clients, whenever we can put people at any level in charge of a meaningful project, they rise to their true level of ability and with a sense of owner mindset.

Read more at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/business/31corner.html?scp=1&sq=corner%20office%20pincus&st=cse

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I was fortunate to have met Jim Young, Chairman and CEO of Union Pacific Corporation, in December where he spoke to the Greenwich Leadership Forum. "The most important lesson I have learned is how to effectively listen - and learned the hard way during the chlorine tank explosion in Louisiana, during our last recession when we needed to rethink our whole model of business and during union negotiations."

Listening skills are the foundation to building trust, creating a culture of innovation and increasing productivity; not to mention better customer loyalty by acting on their feedback. Jim actually makes sure that everyone of his 45,000 employees have his email address!

Then comes along Teresa Taylor, COO at Qwest who says she could not believe it when she heard from people that she was a not a good listener. Her lesson learned ? "Biting my lip, slowing down and then really focusing on what people were saying." [New York Times, Corner Office, 12/27/09]

Doing that better, she learned the technique of listening for better interviewing - by observing candidates over dinner; how they interact with service staff and their decision making when ordering -not to mention the value of a more relaxed environment.

The bottom line: really effective listening is hard to achieve because it involves unlearning behaviors such as impatience, making assumptions about what people are saying (or interpreting their body language and tone). The goal might be re-framed to learning "intuitiveness"; collecting enough dots to connect accurately.

The goal: creating genuine open-mindedness that causes others to offer more of their talent. Without that people get defensive and hold back their best ideas.